LightForm chats with Lee about his newest collection, Observatory, which launched at the Milan Furniture Fair, what he’s learned over a decade in design, and what he’s keen to tackle next.
LF: Congratulations on Observatory. Would you describe this collection as a pivot point or an evolution in your design style?
LB: I sort of see it as both a pivot point and an evolution. I see it as an evolution because over the past ten years with every new collection I’ve tried to evolve the style, the materials that I work with and the collection. If there’s one thing that I always do know with each new show that I present there is definitely going to be an evolution. That’s very natural for me.
This collection was no different in that respect. However, I do see it as a pivot point. One reason, because we kind of closed the book on the past decade if you like. I kind of saw my 11th year as being a new chapter. What I present in this collection to very much kind of typify the focus for the brand over the next few years.
With that I wanted to produce a collection that was still very cutting edge, still had a kind of avant-garde sensibility about it but also had a very commercial aspect to it and really kind of took away all of the detail and really focused on simplicity and very beautiful contemporary shapes.
Orion Globe Light: These connect and expand horizontally and vertically to create bespoke constellations of light with infinite adaptations.
LF: What was the most challenging aspect in the production of this collection?
LB: When you try to create something that’s simple or something that looks easy so to speak, it’s often the most difficult thing to achieve. Ornamentation and decoration can kind of disguise a multitude of sins, I guess!
This collection was really about creating a very simple silhouette with very simple materials and lots of reflections. That requires precision detail to remove things that you don’t want to be seen – to remove screws and fixing points. And to make sure that the luminosity is even, the temperature is right, and that the quality is as good as it can possibly be. So I guess the biggest challenge was to execute all of those details and industrialize them. It’s one thing to produce a beautiful sample, but it’s very different to produce that sample into hundreds or thousands – and to get the production line looking just as good as the original piece.
LF: Your firm has passed its ten year milestone. What has been the biggest surprise for you?
LB: It’s difficult to pinpoint one specific thing. But I guess the biggest surprise for me is really how much I’ve learned about being an entrepreneur.
You know, I didn’t even consider that word necessarily when I started out as a designer owning my own business. I just wanted to be a designer doing my own thing. But once you enter into that world you have to really take on so many different operational activities that you weren’t necessarily formally trained in at design school. I knew that I had a good marketing insight, so to speak – not necessarily trained, but a kind of a natural instinct for what could be popular. But in terms of the logistics of running a business and getting product from sketchbook to consumer – a lot of those things were initially challenging, but I managed to embrace them.
Aurora Chandelier: En masse and reflecting in the rings, the overall effect ensues a glowing aura.
LF: I think that the growth of your brand is not just a testament to your talents as a designer but also to your skills as an entrepreneur.
LB: I think the one thing that I would say is that throughout my career, I recognized I needed to have mentors. I have a business partner that I work with and we make all of the business decisions together and he’s very much involved with the creative direction that I want to go and how it ties in together.
I think a lot of people assume as you grow that all of a sudden your artistic integrity is going to go down the drain. It doesn’t. You don’t have to compromise anything necessarily, but you just have to be smart about the choices that you make. I don’t feel like I’ve had to compromise anything creatively in producing commercial products that are also very cutting edge at the same time. It’s getting the balance right, I think.
Broom in his Salone del Automobile installation, which popped around the streets of Milan during the 2016 design week.
LF: How do you balance your own creative fulfillment with leading a business that needs to respond to commercial demands?
LB: I feel like one of the reasons why myself as a designer and the brand have been successful is because when I started I always had the idea that I wanted to do my own thing. I wasn’t necessarily wanting to tap into what people are asking me to do or what I thought my consumers or what I thought public wanted or what trends were going to be popular. I really sort of separated myself from that kind of noise. When I approach collections now, I approach it in exactly the same way.
From the beginning of the designing process, I’m very switched off to everything. I guess you could compare it to a group of people in a brainstorm about anything and then somebody pipes up with a ridiculous idea and then somebody goes, “Hang on – that’s not going to work,” and it kind of kills everything. Brainstorming should be about your wildest fantasies – where anything is possible. And that’s where my head space needs to be right at the very beginning of a project.
Once I have ideas that I really love, I present them to my business partner and the product development team. My business partner will sometimes give some feedback about the commerciality of the idea that may potentially filter into the designs afterwards. But if I’m very passionate about something that doesn’t fit within that kind of set, well, then I’ll still do it, to be honest!
Time Machine Grandfather Clock
For instance, last year all of our products were limited edition pieces in celebration of our 10 years and the main product I created was a five-foot-tall solid marble grandfather clock that retailed at over $50,000 a unit. Let’s say the world is not crying out for marble grandfather clocks!
LF: Maybe not!
LB: But to me, it’s important to have that balance of kind of being creative and to show the world my vision and how it fits within the brand. So this year, I wanted to do a lighting collection that actually can fit in many people’s homes. It’s getting that balance of kind of being able to do all of those things, really.
LF: When you look at your work, which piece best reflects your overall design philosophy?
LB: I would say Crescent. Because it’s the idea of taking something that we’ve seen before and putting a new twist on it. So, in this case, taking a classic globe light that we all know very well, but slicing it asymmetrically and shifting it slightly so that you have this kind of brass crescent that runs around. It connects with people because they feel like they’ve seen it before. Just not quite in this way.
Crescent’s illuminated spheres are sliced asymmetrically in half to reveal a crescent-shaped brushed brass fascia
I think that kind of design very much typifies my sort of philosophy. I always look back to some historical reference or putting two things together that haven’t been put together in that way before and then presenting it in a new way. It’s not my ambition to discover new materials or the bleeding edge of technology – I want to use those elements but combine them with something we’re all familiar with. That’s what gives Crescent, specifically, a real sense to modernity but also a sense of classicism. I feel like that piece could be in somebody’s home for their rest of their lives and it wouldn’t date. They would pass it down to people, you know?
LF: Which piece pushed you the most in terms of your design boundaries?
LB: I would say it’s not necessarily a piece but probably one of the shows that I did. Every collection that we do is presented in an exhibition space and the shows I’ve put on are very immersive and experiential because I like the idea of creating an experience for people and not just presenting the products.
Rotating full-sized merry-go-round showcasing LEE BROOM products.
Last year for Milan Design Week we presented 10 years worth of work on a rotating full-sized merry-go-round underneath the arches of the Milan Central Station, which had not been open to the public for 30 years. So it was this dank, dark, dilapidated space but in the middle there was this modernist fairground ride with all the products on it all blown out in white. That was a really challenging piece of work to do I think. Not just for me, but for the whole team.
First off, it was recreating all of the products in new materials or new finishes. Then it was the kind of actual creation of the carousel itself. We produced it in Pinewood Studios in London where they film Star Wars so we were kind of creating this carousel and there’d be stormtroopers walking past the lot.
LF: Which of your products is your personal favourite?
LB: Anything that’s new is a favourite, so I love the new collection, of course. But looking back on previous products, it’s the Optical light that I really love. Again, it’s a really simple globe light, but it has these black and white stripes that kind of wrap around the piece. When you look at the light from different angles it changes – it’s not the same pattern.
Optical Light: Op Art graphic patterns are the inspiration for this modern pendant light.
I like it because it reminds me of my childhood. I kind of grew up in the early 90s and my bedroom was my first foray into interior design, I guess. So I decorated it in all monochrome black and white and I used this idea with these stripes where I would cut them asymmetrically all over the wall and that’s where I kind of got the idea for this light. It’s exactly what I would have put in my bedroom in 1991.
Ring Light: a pendant of simplicity and elegance.
LF: As you look ahead beyond the next decade, what else you would like to achieve as a designer?
LB: I don’t want to limit myself to furniture and lighting. I started out in fashion school and worked as a fashion designer, so I feel that my ability as a designer can cut through to many different mediums. I’d like to work more with technology, for instance. I would like to look at taking what I’ve learned from presenting shows and creatively direct a performance or a pop concert, you know? And there’s still other interiors that I would love to design. We’ve not designed a hotel yet and that’s something I’m keen to do in the near future.
To be honest, we’ve been going for 10 years, but really I feel like I’ve only just started!
Join us on Thursday, May 24 2018 from 6-8pm at LightForm Toronto (267 Niagara Street), where Lee will be talking about his career as one of the U.K.’s most successful designers and his new collection, which will be on display.
In association with AZURE.